At ‘Human Library,’ VCU students aim to challenge stereotypes through storytelling

Jed Baul, left, and Noura Allen.
Jed Baul, left, will be one of several student narrators at Saturday's "Human Library" event. Noura Allen, right, brought Human Library to VCU to help introduce people to ideas and opinions that might differ from their own. (Photo by James Irwin, University Public Affairs)

Jed Baul was a high school student when he heard about the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the weeks following the shooting, thousands of students around the United States organized a walkout event to honor those killed and to protest gun violence.

Baul was one of those students. He said the Parkland shooting awakened in him a sense of activism.

“I feel like that helped me find out who I was,” he said. “If no one else was going to do it, someone had to, and I was willing to take the risk because it’s important. It’s important to have a voice, not only for me but for anyone else who feels the same way, or even someone who respectfully disagrees.”

In the months to follow, Baul found himself working harder to understand other people and their perceptions. It was important, he realized, especially in a world so polarized. He began gravitating toward civics and politics. He enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University and switched his major from pre-med to political science. 

“We never get to understand each other unless we truly comprehend someone's full background,” Baul said. “We see that in politics every day — the lack of communication or discussion about why we think a certain way, or perceive something this way or that way.”

On Saturday, Baul will be one of many students and community members participating in an event, Human Library, that aims to address this absence of dialogue by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to share their stories. Human Library originated in Denmark and features narrators — acting as human “books” — and an audience of “readers.” Dialogue among participants — usually a few minutes long and in one-on-one or small-group settings — helps introduce people to ideas and opinions that might differ from their own, said Noura Allen, an assistant director of residential life for multicultural affairs.

“It's going to be a wide range of narratives,” Allen said. “There [will be] a book on the intersectionality of race, gender and mental health, one on race and being a first-generation student, one on being a nontraditional mother — having children at a young age, helping them grow up and then going back to school as a nontraditional student.”

It’s important to have a voice. … We never get to understand each other unless we truly comprehend someone's full background.

Allen, a VCU graduate, brought Human Library to the university after learning about it from Jerrica Stovall, a classmate and sorority sister who now works in student affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Allen hopes the event creates connections among people who don’t normally interact with one another.

“I think VCU at times feels so big that we lose the ability to create connections with people we don't always come into contact with, and I hope that we can begin to transform that culture,” she said. “So if I engage with you [at this event] I want this to open the door to more engagement. I hope that there is a lasting change to the way in which we talk about who we are as people.” 

Human Library, hosted by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and Residential Life and Housing, will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Rams Lounge of the University Student Commons. About 20 “books” will be available at the event, Allen said. Baul’s narration, “Still on this Ride,” will include his thoughts on finding a sense of self and how life’s unexpected turns affect people. He is looking forward to sharing his story, and hearing from others, and said the event is a step toward reclaiming “a little sense of our humanity.” 

“It feels like we’re losing that in this digital era of social media and constant arguing,” he said. “I feel like it is a huge first step to actually be in a room with someone who either does or doesn’t fully understand what you have gone through in your life. 

“Even if you are a stranger, and you are in a room with someone you don’t know, once we start talking about ourselves that makes us feel more human.”